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The American criminal justice system is comprised of three branches: law enforcement, the courts and corrections. All operate within the confines of law, as the term "criminal justice" describes the process and government organizations that are in existence to uphold local and federal laws. The three branches of the criminal justice system work in conjunction with the different branches of government to manage crime, punish unlawful activities appropriately and offer rehabilitation services to offenders.
The law enforcement branch is comprised of police officers, sheriffs and federal agents, and often acts as the first contact between offenders and the criminal justice system. The role of law enforcement is to investigate crimes and determine when to make an arrest based on evidence and eyewitness accounts. Law enforcement officers are typically allowed great discretion when it comes to their investigations and arrests, and they often work closely with prosecutors to move the case along.
Local, state and federal courts are the places in which disputes and legal affairs are heard before a judge, and perhaps a jury. A judge will use his or her knowledge of the law to ensure the case is heard under fair and just circumstances, as the accused party is considered innocent until proven guilty. Prosecuting attorneys aim to prove the guilt of the accused, while defense attorneys work to prove that there is reasonable doubt of the guilt of the accused. In a court room evidence is examined, testimonies are given and procedures are recorded in great detail in an attempt to reconstruct the offense in question.
The corrections branch of the criminal justice system works to protect society by assigning appropriate punishments for offenders, and includes jail or prison time, parole or probation as well as rehabilitation options open to offenders. Jail time, which consists of short terms of confinement in a local facility, is typically reserved for first offenses or minor infractions of the law, while prison sentences are longer periods of incarceration, and can last for a few years to several decades. Probation and parole are other aspects of the corrections branch of the criminal justice system, and both work to ensure the offender not continue to participate in a life of crime.